Remote Control

How Joseph Pulitzer built a media powerhouse—in absentia

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power | James McGrath Morris | Harper | 559 pages, $29.99

What is most striking about the latest biography of Joseph Pulitzer is how little time he actually spent tending to his two newspapers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World. A close reading of James McGrath Morris’s Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power suggests that the press baron, who spent more than three decades as a newspaper owner, was a hands-on publisher for no more than ten of those years.

Pulitzer’s ascent to the pinnacle of journalism in this country was remarkably swift. Morris devotes the first third of his book to this rags-to-riches trajectory. After a childhood in Hungary, Pulitzer arrived in the United States in the midst of the Civil War, an ambitious teenager unable to speak a word of English. He settled in St. Louis, then the country’s fourth-largest city, and within five years he was elected to the state legislature, where he made a name for himself as a foe of corruption.

Meanwhile, he had begun contributing to the Westliche Post, a German-language newspaper. There he first tasted the joy and power of the press. In 1878, at age thirty-one, Pulitzer founded the St. Louis Post-Dispatch out of the wreckage of two local papers, the Post and the Dispatch. The afternoon daily, which remains in operation to this day, prospered—and within three years, Pulitzer passed the day-to-day management on to others, since the Post-Dispatch “practically ran itself.” Until his death nearly three decades later, he would visit the paper only three times, the last being in 1888.

By now, in any case, Pulitzer was seeking a larger stage. He was eager to outdo his younger brother, Albert, who had started the New York Journal. To do so, Pulitzer purchased Jay Gould’s money-losing New York World in 1883, taking a loan from Gould himself—a robber baron whom Pulitzer deemed “one of the most sinister figures that have ever flitted bat-like across the vision of the American people.” At once the new owner brightened the paper’s dull headlines and admonished his staff to “write in a buoyant, colloquial style comprising simple nouns, bright verbs and short, punchy, sentences.”

Within six months, the paper’s circulation tripled to 45,000, and grew to 300,000 by the fifth anniversary of Pulitzer’s ownership. With its war on monopolists, efforts to protect immigrants, and its work on behalf of the poor, the World soon became the widely read newspaper in American history.

Pulitzer worked very hard, and that took its toll. His fragile health led to a habit of perpetual flight. And in 1887, the onset of blindness pulled a curtain down on his world. Within five years of purchasing the paper, he had cemented his role as an absentee owner.

In 1888, for example, he spent the first six months of the year in California. Then, after a brief return to New York, he left for Europe for eighteen months. Of the twenty-eight years he spent at the helm of what Morris calls “the nation’s most important newspaper,” Pulitzer was in New York for only a fraction of that time. And even when he was in the city, he stayed away from the office. He even skipped the opening of the World’s grand building on Park Row in 1890, and visited only three times.

Indeed, if this book were all you were to read about Pulitzer, you might be hard pressed to understand why such greatness has been attributed to him. From Morris, it is hard to get a good fix on where his subject actually stood. Early on, the biographer asserts that Pulitzer was the “midwife to the birth of the modern mass media.” Later, Morris concludes that “although he was a times an innovator in journalism, this was not his strength.” Pulitzer’s real contribution, argues the author, was his business acumen, his “uncanny ability to recognize value where others had not.”

Certainly Pulitzer’s long war with the New York Journal (which William Randolph Hearst had purchased from Pulitzer’s brother) was more a matter of business acumen than visionary journalism. His rival’s success rested on, as Morris puts it, human interest stories “spiced with risqué items, humor and, above all, a slavish devotion to society news.” The World descended into “sensationalist word-to-word combat with the Journal,” whose exploding circulation threatened Pulitzer’s reputation and political power.

In Morris’s interpretation, Hearst lured “the World down into what many people in the city regarded as gutter journalism.” But the author does not include many specifics of just how Pulitzer was dragged down by Hearst, and this omission harms the book. Nor does Morris describe Pulitzer’s accomplishments sufficiently to suggest why he was an heroic publisher, beyond his eye for the main chance and his early, populist leanings.

The latter, of course, did not last. Within little more than a decade of its purchase by Pulitzer, the World went “from being the bad boy of Park Row to being a stodgy defender of the political establishment.” And its owner was transformed from an idealistic reformer to a wealthy solipsist, who was “incapable of acknowledging the suffering of others.” Idiosyncrasies abounded in Pulitzer’s personal and private life. Guests found his company hard to take, enduring his “strictures against slurping soup or crunching on toast.” At the office, he did not want any short men hired.

Nor was his family life any more rewarding. Pulitzer spent little time with his wife Kate and their children, and when he did, he could be disagreeable and distant. Morris notes, “Even when he was at his best, Joseph made their marriage an ordeal for Kate. If he was not too consumed by work, he was haunted by sickness, real and imagined. As his worries about work and his fears for his health mounted, so did his notorious temper and impatience.”

In painting his portrait of this flawed tycoon, Morris has drawn on previously unavailable material: an unpublished memoir by Albert Pulitzer, who spent most of his life estranged from his more famous brother, and a cache of letters to Kate Pulitzer from her lover, Arthur Brisbane, a brilliant editor for Pulitzer who later defected to Hearst’s camp. In fact, the author speculates that 1895, Kate Pulitzer may have become pregnant with Herbert, the couple’s youngest child, by Brisbane.

If Brisbane was indeed the father, Joseph Pulitzer was not aware of his patrimony. In his will, he astonished the rest of his children by leaving sixty percent of his newspaper holdings to Herbert. But Herbert and his brother Ralph, who jointly ran the World, were ill-equipped to do so. They had inherited little of their father’s journalistic spark. Nor had Joseph Pulitzer really put a succession plan in place. As Morris writes, “the blame [for the paper’s gradual decline] rested as much on their father as on the two sons. As an absentee owner, Joseph had refused to cede sufficient control so that a corporate management structure could be built.”

Roy Howard, another media baron, purchased the World in 1931, closed it down, and added the name to another one of his papers, the New York World-Telegram. The family sold the Post-Dispatch—the paper that “ran itself”—in 2005. What remains of Joseph Pulitzer’s legacy are the journalism school and prizes he endowed at Columbia.

Click here for a complete Page Views archive.

Correction: In the original version of this story, CJR reported that the Pulitzer family sold the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1995. They actually sold it in 2005. The relevant paragraph has been corrected. We regret the error.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Tom Goldstein is a professor of journalism and director of the Media Studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. He is West Coast editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.